Opera Australia Blog

Love in a bottle: love potions and literature

The Love Potion, by Evelyn De Morgan (1903).

The Love Potion, by Evelyn De Morgan (1903).

Ever wanted a magical fix for unrequited love? A cure-all remedy for rejection?

Throughout history, the promise of love-in-a-bottle has worked its magic on generations: from Pliny the Elder (who prescribed various gruesome concoctions including hyena eyes as aphrodisiacs) to modern day Africa, where love potions are still sold on the open market.

The Byzantines used to bake cakes made with donkey milk and honey to give to newly married couples. In Europe, a concoction called “Spanish Fly” is still popular– a toxic substance made from ground-up beetles.

There’s little proof any of these so-called love potions or aphrodisiacs actually work, but that hasn’t stopped them making their way into literature, art and music.

The most famous is of course Donizetti’s charming rural comedy, The Elixir of Love, where the travelling larrikin Dulcamara peddles a love potion to the hapless, lovesick Nemorino.

Nemorino seeks the elixir of Queen Isolde (more on her in a second) to win the heart of his beloved Adina. The quack Dulcamara sells him a bottle of cheap wine, but Nemorino believes in its power.

“Elixir of love! You’re mine now, rarest of treasures
How great must be your power, how strong your force!
Before I even taste you, my heart is floating and my pulse beats faster.”

The Elixir of Love, Act I Scene vii, DONIZETTI


In Wagner’s celebrated opera of the Celtic legend Tristan & Isolde, the ill-fated lovers drink a potion. Tristan believes it to be poison, but it does not bring death – instead – the pair fall insatiably further into love. It brings with it their sublime love duet:

In Shakespeare’s fairy comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Oberon makes a love potion to get back at his wife.

“Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II Scene i, SHAKESPEARE

 (He hopes the next live creature will be something hideous, indeed, it’s the bumbling, donkey-headed Bottom, who has fallen victim to Puck’s mischief).


Slightly more recently, The Clovers had a hit on their hands with their Love Potion No. 9

“I told her that I was a flop with chicks
I’ve been this way since 1956
She looked at my palm and she made a magic sign
She said ‘What you need is Love Potion Number Nine’ “

Love Potion No. 9, THE CLOVERS


In Shrek 2, the ogre steals a “Happily Ever After” potion from the Fairy Godmother’s lair, believing it will bring him and his true love “beauty divine”. (Things are never that simple, Shrek!)

Shrek love potion


And finally, always getting himself into trouble, Ron Weasley is the victim of a misdirected love potion in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince


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